August 1999

Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals
Rounder 1161-0461-2
HDCD encoded
Released: 1999

by David J. Cantor

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality **1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]In some ways, Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals is a highly conventional bluegrass album. It opens with a moderately fast ballad introducing all of the voices and instruments we will hear throughout the CD. Track 2 slows way, way down and relies more on melody and a richly harmonized refrain. The collection includes one song about what it will be like when the singer reaches heaven. It has no electric instruments. But the 13 tracks provide great variety -- not mostly about lost or threatened love -- and if you fancy folk and topical songs, you’ll like the forays in those directions.

One of my favorites is the opener, "Tall Pines." Written by Damon Black, its simple refrain -- "Tall pines, tall pines, reaching up for the clouds/Tall pines, tall pines, I guess you wouldn’t know me now" -- reinforces the central metaphor in which the growth of the trees parallels that of the singer. At first, the singer laments the slow growth of the pine trees she planted in her youth. But after a long time away, she returns to find the pines, too, have matured. The final refrain changes to express awe at the fact that these magnificent trees that at first appeared not to be making it will outlast the singer: "Tall pines, tall pines, I’ve come home to sleep beneath your bows."

Lewis does a fine job of singing "Black Waters" by Jean Ritchie, whose pure mountain voice and Appalachian dulcimer contributed to the post-World War II political folk-song movement, the broader folk-music revival of the 1950s, and the countercultural folk revival of the 1960s after she left her Kentucky home for New York City to teach children’s songs and dances at a summer camp.

"Black Waters" is part lament of environmental degradation, part elegy to a devastated mountain region: "Sad scenes of destruction on every hand/Black waters, black waters run down through my land." The song achieves its power in part from the fact that, when Ritchie speaks, and Lewis sings, of "my land," it is not only hers because this land was "made for you and me," but because she fully experienced the beauty that has been lost. And Ritchie’s song appears to have influenced Lewis’ "The Wood Thrush’s Song":

I walk down the hall where the woods used to stand,/Concrete at my feet, brick walls at every hand./And over my head, steel girders so strong/Where I first felt the spell of the wood thrush’s song./Now the wood thrush has vanished, seeking the place/That’s not felt the crush of man’s embrace ….

Tending to prefer fast-played bluegrass over slow, lilting stuff, I very much enjoy Lewis’ "Blow, Big Wind" -- "Blow, big wind, like the storm on the sea,/Blow, big wind, you can’t shake me" -- and "Hard Luck and Trouble," by Jeff Smith with additional lyrics by Lewis.

Who are the "pals" here? There’s Mary Gibbons on rhythm guitar and harmony. Finding the other female voice besides Lewis’ familiar, I reread the sleeve of The All Girl Boys’ excellent Heart’s Desire [1994: Wilder Shore Records 1010618], and there Gibbons was. Tom Rozum, who with Lewis recorded The Oak and the Laurel [1995: Rounder 0340], nominated for a Grammy Award as best traditional folk album, plays mandolin and sings lead and harmony. Craig Smith plays banjo and, on one track each, plays lead guitar and sings bass. Todd Phillips plays string bass and also sings bass. These are highly experienced and talented musicians, and the CD’s detailed liner notes provide interesting information about each of them.

It is gratifying, but not surprising given the musical pedigree of the performers, that most of this CD offers what bluegrass fans seek out: honest, straightforward, powerful singing whose expressiveness doesn’t forsake enunciation; tight instrumental and vocal arrangements with everyone highly engaged, no one overbearing; and masterful solos that display the musicians’ gifts without overly constraining the performances or deteriorating into Jelloey jams. Highly recommended.